Nuances of Black and White

Major Styles of Japanese Ink Art


Catching a Catfish with a Gourd - Josetsu

Mountain Landscape - Attributed to Shubun

Haboku Landscape - Sesshu

Bodhidharma - Hakuin

Yawning Hotei - Sengai


Japanese ink art is prized as a beautiful symbol of Japanese culture. Though highly influenced by China, Japanese painters succeeded in creating highly original and distinctive styles and works. Additionally, much of this suiboku is strongly tied to Zen Buddhism, a religion that, while based in a strong Indian and Chinese tradition, found its true home in Japan.

Because of these religious ties, it is important to understand the growth of Zen in order to properly understand the appearance of this artistic tradition. Fortunately, it does not take long to gain an understanding of the very practical Zen religion and, similarly, to know the origins of the Japanese painting traditions. Additionally, suiboku often portray similar subjects and themes; knowledge of these themes and some of those who painted them can prove highly illuminative.

historical background

kodai art

Before the appearance of Zen art and its offspring, kodai painting dominated Japanese culture. Kodai is a Japanese art history term referring to the Asuka (552-646) and Nara (646-794) periods, though Ichimatsu Tanaka extends this definition to include the Heian period of 794-1185 (Tanaka 9). This traditional form of art would persist well into the 13th century, though the rise of the warrior class and especially the shogunate would set its demise in motion (Tanaka 30).

Early kodai art was heavily influenced by the Tang dynasty (618-906) in China, with Japanese artists producing works in a style that is largely indistinguishable from their Chinese counterparts (Tanaka 10). Foreign artisans composed much of and often lead the Painter's Bureau, a Nara-period government office that formed the center of Japanese art (Tanaka 11). Such a reliance on foreign artists is bound to slow the creation of a uniquely national style; in fact, this foreign influence would remain strong until the Bureau became the Edokoro (Painting Office) of the Heian court (Tanaka 11).

As the Heian period began, Japanese artists began to develop a more uniquely Japanese style. Murals and screen paintings gave way to hanging scrolls, and the painting style grew more delicate (Tanaka 13). The collapse of the Tang dynasty in 906 quickly destroyed any remaining artistic internationalism, but Japanese art would still remain only a variation on the Tang style until the twelfth century (Tanaka 14-16).

The appearance of the Kamakura shogunate (1185-1336) marked the beginning of the Heian decline, though kodai art remained largely unaffected (Tanaka 16). Somewhat ironically, the arrival of the strong warrior class actually served to strengthen the position of the kodai tradition. The mutual antipathy between Kyoto and Kamakura spurred supporters of kodai art to entrench themselves against those who attempted to deny it (Tanaka 31-33).

Though there was a growing denial of the old tradition, it was not until the beginning of the Muromachi Period under the Ashikaga shogunate (1336-1568) in Kyoto that kodai art was truly threatened (Tanaka 25). Zen temples flourished under this shogunate, producing artists who would establish Zen art as a new art tradition.

zen beginnings

It is important to explain the growth and ideas of Zen Buddhism in order to properly show how this sect inspired an art form quite different from the kodai tradition. Japanese Zen is actually a very pragmatic religion, despite the airs of mysticism that are commonly attributed to it; this pragmatism, as well as the incorporation of popular beliefs, accounts for its longevity, as it remains a powerful during theology even today (Awakawa 18).

Zen and its 'wordlessness' may be considered as old as Buddhism itself, for legend states that it was first transmitted from Sakyamuni (1029-949 BC), the founding Buddha, to a disciple via the mere twirling of a flower held in front of Sakyamuni's chest (Seikyo Times and Brinker 7). Sometime after this legendary transmission of Zen, Buddhism spread into China through the teaching of Bodhidharma (c. 440-528) (Platt). However, even before Buddhism arrived in China, the practice of ch'an--the Chinese term for "openness" and "contemplation" from which the term zen is derived--was already present as early as the second century AD (Brinker 2).

Chinese Zen Buddhism steadily became quite different from the original Indian version. Though it still emphasized the Indian practices of meditation and contemplation, it fused with the pragmatism of Confucianism while also drawing on Neo-Taoism's emphasis on the essence of morality (Awakawa 18-20). This Buddhist school persisted in China until the seventh century, when rivalry and disagreements about fundamental theological points split the school into northern and southern components (Brinker 7). The short-lived northern school was often referred to as "gradual" Zen, for its teachings emphasized a staged approach of study to attain enlightenment. Southern Zen viewed such scholasticism as an unnecessary expedient (or even a hindrance); its followers believed that enlightenment comes suddenly, as one meditates to shed the encumbrances on one's mind (Awakawa 16). Southern Zen is often called "sudden" Zen because of this belief, and it was to become the Zen of Japan (Awakawa 15).

Despite the growing importance of Zen Buddhism in China, Zen would not reach Japan until the thirteenth century. A Tendai priest named Eisai (1141-1215) is credited as the foremost founder of Japanese Zen after his voyage to Sung China in 1168 and establishment of the Kennin-ji temple in 1202 (Tanaka 36). The slow adoption of Zen is reflected in the fact that early 'Zen' temples like Kennin-ji actually had to combine Zen with more popular sects like Tendai in order to teach it at all. Though popular with the warrior class as a religion that denied many old traditions, Zen would not be established as a formal sect until the fourteenth century (Tanaka 38).

During this time of solidification, a large number of Chinese Zen priests were coming to Japan to escape the Mongol invasions of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries (Tanaka 60). They brought paintings with them as well; many of these paintings were of the doshakuga type, a type that used Taoist and Buddhist themes for aesthetic appreciation instead of worship (Tanaka 61). These paintings helped promote a growing movement in Japanese art away from mysticism and toward pragmaticism and realism, values that Zen Buddhism (and therefore Zen art) fit easily with.

Ultimately, suiboku--monochrome ink art--grew in the hands of the Zen monks in Kyoto. The Shokoku-ji, a leading Zen temple in Kyoto, was established under the Ashikaga shogunate and would eventually become the new art academy of Kyoto. The aging Edokoro declined with the non-military aristocracy, and eventually kodai art was cast as a traditional stereotype (Tanaka 64).

research report

As the Edokoro declined, the potential for a new art academy grew. The Shokoku-ji would come to fill this role as several of its leading priests made important contributions to the growth of new Japanese art forms.


Josetsu was the first notable artist to appear during the Muromachi period. Though little is known about his life, scholars have determined that he was a priest-painter from the Shokoku-ji and was active during the early fifteenth century (Tanaka 65). He had close ties with the Ashikaga shoguns, and is typically credited with the founding of the 'academy' which would produce most of Japan's early monochrome ink painters.

Only three works are positively identified as Josetsu's; the most noted of these works is Catching a Catfish with a Gourd, which was painted around 1413. This Chinese-influenced ink painting establishes Josetsu as a seminal figure in Japanese monochrome ink painting (Awakawa 177). The work is meant to depict the elusive nature of Zen, faring far better at its depiction than the accompanying inscriptions (Awakawa 74 and Tanaka 65). The odd-looking man central to the painting is faced with the difficult task of catching a rather large catfish with a rather small gourd, and his somewhat stilted appearance lends a humorous air to the work.

Though little about Josetsu is known, even less is established concerning Shubun, Josetsu's apparent successor and student. He is believed to have been active from the 1430s until his supposed death at some time in the 1460s (Tanaka 70). He probably had closer ties to the shogunate than Josetsu, serving as a professional painter and sculptor (Tanaka 68). Though a large body of landscape paintings, many of them multipart screens, are attributed to Shubun, no existing works have been successfully verified as his.

Many of these works of indeterminate ownership reveal a strong Korean influence; this trait is not surprising considering that Shubun visited Korea around 1423 (Tanaka 89). This influence was quickly assimilated and altered by Shubun and his followers. However, Ichimatsu Tanaka suggests that it may aid in pinpointing some of Shubun's works, offering Mountain Landscape as one such probable (pp 90-91).

It is also important to note here that although Shubun was a Zen monk, his paintings made little use of religious themes or ideas. In fact, he left the temple fairly early in order to focus on his paintings (Awakawa 182). His allegedly prolific use of landscapes as subjects marks him as the founder of the fully Japanese ink landscape, and his style would become the root for ink monochrome painting during much of the Muromachi period (Awakawa 183).

The next painter of note is significant for his formation of a style markedly different from that of the academy-trained painters that followed Josetsu and Shubun. His name was Sesshu, and his amazing technical ability resulted in some of the most striking ink monochromes of the era.

Sesshu was born around 1420 and was raised as a Zen monk, eventually studying at the Shokoku-ji (Awakawa 180). It is likely that he was taught by Shubun, but a journey to China from 1467 to 1469 caused marked differences in his style (Tanaka 121). While in China, he studied the works of Sung masters and absorbed elements of the new Yuan and Ming styles (Tanaka 128). He was not particularly impressed by Chinese painters, however, and began painting in a style intended to draw from reality instead of following previous painters (Tanaka 121).

Sesshu quickly freed himself of any potential urban and religious shackles after his return from China in 1469. He abandoned his position as a painter-priest in Kyoto and remained in rural provinces for the latter half of his life, but he was still an incredibly active painter despite his disconnection from the capital (Tanaka 110). The majority of his works from this time are landscapes, but he still painted some common Zen themes like the Bodhidharma and Hotei.

Sesshu inspired a great number of painters and many followed his style. Nature scenes grew in popularity and religious themes declined; however, as Tanaka notes, Japanese paintings were still imbued with a strong spirituality (p 137). Chinese paintings regained popularity, as did Chinese calligraphy. Bokuseki, calligraphy by prestigious Chinese Zen priests, was highly valued for display during tea ceremonies (Tanaka 140).

Zen Buddhism could still inspire powerful art forms, however, and the appearance of artists like Hakuin (1685-1768) and Sengai (1750-1837) revived the message of Zen through the painting of true Zenga pieces. In these paintings, the essence of the painter's Zen experience is imbued in the painting; the subject and technique are not nearly as important as the enlightened state of the painter (Awakawa 29).

Hakuin is significant figure in both art and Zen Buddhism, as he used Zenga, songs, and books to revive flagging interest in the religion during the Edo period (1603-1867). He oriented his message toward the ordinary people, an audience that proved very receptive to his paintings. He often painted Zenga of Bodhidharma using bold lines and energetic san writing; though his technique does not appear as refined as that of artists' like Sesshu, it is a direct outgrowth of his Zen experience and thus transmits his message more powerfully than more technically skilled painters (Awakawa 40).

Sengai was a similarly popular figure, though his paintings are often considered more lighthearted than Hakuin's. His Zenga are distinctive for their use of uncommon themes and a light, almost convoluted, use of lines. He, like Hakuin, is significant for popularizing Zen teachings with the common people (Awakawa 180).

typical subjects

Japanese ink art, particulary Zen art, is marked by the repeated use of common subjects. One must not conclude that Japanese art is repetitive or unoriginal, however, as in using these common themes the artists were able to show considerable creativity in their execution.

Perhaps the most well-known subject is the landscape. Landscape painting is common in China and Japan, but the Asian attitude of respect (even awe) towards the power of nature imbues these paintings with a certain spirituality that is uncommon in Western landscapes (Tanaka 137). Landscapes were frequently used on screens and partitions, and often repeated the landscape in for four seasons or from different viewpoints. Other figures from nature (such as birds, bamboo, and trees) are frequently portrayed with the same spiritual quality and intent.

Doshakuga, or paintings on Taoist and Buddhist themes, appear similarly frequently, even in the secular realm. A large number of figures belong to this category, including Sakyamuni and Bodhidharma, the respective founders of Indian and Chinese Buddhism, as well as Buddhist and Taoist gods such as the White-robed Kannon. It is important to note here that although these paintings are of religious figures, they typically render the subject as quite human and devoid of many trappings of religion (Tanaka 60-62). Hotei, though he appears most frequently in Zen art, deserves a special mention here because of his popularity as a subject: the carefree monk with his protruding belly is often a symbol of proper Zen attitude and denial of rules.

One other group of subjects deserves mention, and that is the koan. Koan can be thought of as "Zen riddles," and were originally intended as foci for Zen meditation. They can be simple-sounding questions, such as the much-abused "What is the sound of one hand clapping?," or illustrative events, such as when Tokusan found himself at a loss for words during a philosophical discussion and promptly burned a copy of the Diamond Sutra. Such paintings are far less common, as they were created only by Zen painters and were typically only used for training new students of Zen (Awakawa 37).

the san

One may notice that a large amount of Chinese and Japanese art is accompanied by a sometimes sizable inscription. In Japan, this inscription is called the san. These inscriptions are typically written by priest-friends of the painter, though many cases exist where the san is written by the one who painted the picture (Awakawa 38).

Yasuichi Awakawa notes that "...the picture proper can be considered the principle of the work, whereas the san is the application" (p 38). The inscription is oftentimes a brief description of the painting's subject, or a cryptic comment meant to spur further contemplation. At other times, it is a description of the artist or subject's life.
One should be careful not to dismiss the san's importance, as both the writing and the work provide a message that neither could transmit alone. San can provide valuable clarity, historical information, or paths to further insight that simply cannot be expressed in the body of the work. As Awakawa also states, "...a good san could imbue even the painting of such an object [as a plastic bucket] with meaning" (p 40).

historical significance

The Zenga of Hakuin and Sengai are probably the works with the single greatest historical impact, as they helped Zen Buddhism regain popularity in Japan. Their work and their art helped to insure that Zen is still a common word and a common concept in Japan and in the Western world.

One must also note the significance of these styles as unique Japanese descendants of many Chinese cultural ideas. The exchange between the two nations was significant, and Japan's culture and theology owe much to China. However, it was never long before Chinese ideas and art forms were transformed into something that was essentially Japanese. The suiboku tradition and the religion that helped inspire it are certainly perfect examples of this transformation.


Awakawa, Yasuichi. Zen Painting. Trans. John Bester. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Bowie, Henry P. On the Laws of Japanese Painting. US: Dover Publications, Inc., 1951.

Brinker, Helmut. Zen in the Art of Painting. Trans. George Campbell. New York: Arkana, 1987.

Hillier, J. R. Japanese Drawings: From the 17th through the 19th Century. New York: Shorewood Publishers Inc., 1965.

Platt, Deb. "About Bodhidharma". 1999. URL:

Saito, Ryukyu. Japanese Ink-Painting: Lessons in Suiboku Technique. Rutland, Vermond: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1966.

Seikyo Times (author unkown). "Shakyamuni Buddha". Nov 1988. URL:

Tanaka, Ichimatsu. Japanese Ink Painting: Shubun to Sesshu.. Trans. Bruce Darling. New York: John Weatherhill Inc., 1974.

web resources

Stephen Addiss's reflections on Zenga.

Digitized Zen manuscripts from Hanazano University.

Mysticism in six popular world religions.